Richard White

explorations in place and time


Leave a comment

Sweet Waters Holburne Museum to Beckfords Tower

A first stab at writing up my notes:

I come back from a walk a different person

Walk 1 From the Holburne Museum to Beckfords Towerbriefing at Holburne
Bath’s Last Legal Slaveowners
2 proper tour guides on this first day walking team and I’m on stage edgey
One from the buses, the other from mad max.

and me.

Gathering in the sun outside the pillared temple of the museum at the top of Pulteney Street. Architectural icons from ancient slave economies fetished to represent learning and authority. The Roman Baths were discovered under the offices of Bath’s Poor Law Guardians. (archaeologicial irony)

Slaves ancient and modern, just like the poor of the City have no voice here.

Don’t mention the sugar.

Sugar that sweetened the tea and transformed chocolate to sweet treat.

Sweet ease of polite society hiding in glass cabineted silver bowls and tongs

No tongues for the sugar nips

Don’t mention the sugar, the Holburne doesnt

 

First thing in the high ceilinged morning cool gallery we talk in hushed tones. We drift toward Gainsborough’s portrait of slaveowners. One of the largest canvases he painted, it says. These were the people who came to the enchanted city to take the waters, to recover from the heat and disease, to network, to speculate, to gamble. The Byams, a family with its feet deep in the blood and flesh of the slave worked plantation economy. Gainsborough painted them. Pulteney financed accommodation for them, speculating with profits won from stolen land and stolen lives. The enchanted city flourished on their wealth and patronage

Gainsborough George Byam
Out to the pleasure gardens to alert senses and sensibility.

Listen. Touch. Feel. Think.

Get the Jane Austen lived there, walked here, bit. Over.

out into the park

And we walked too, stopping at the claimants addresses for:
A ritual reading of the ‘charge sheet’.
The address in Bath, where we stood;

The name of the slave-owner who lived there
Date of the court order;
Number of enslaved people;
Name of the plantation, parish, Caribbean island;
Number of pounds paid out in ‘compensation’ to the slave-owner
Those released received no compensation

I heard echoes of Linton Kwesi Johnson and the New Cross Fire

“13 dead and nothing said”

I try to break the silence of this enchanted city
A run of performative statements repetitive intentional becoming disturbing:

20 million paid out and nothing said

How many lives lost, how many lives never lived. How much life blighted.

 

Sweat in the water. Blood in the sea

Reading Dabydeen aloud and suggesting Turner’s hypocrisy

Slavers Throwing Overboard the Dead and Dying – Typhon coming on. 1840

The water cycle brings it all back to us now.

 

A Turner painting survives as the only record of Beckford’s monumental plantation-wealth funded Abbey

Did Beckford introduce Turner to a speculative money spinner, spun on lives and sugar?

Was he feeling guilty by 1840, decades after the Zong massacre?
In Bath no memorials only silent monuments to slave generated wealth:

Pulteney bridge

Guinea Lane

Beckfords tower.

We walk a city inscribed, the origins of its wealth obscured

 

Braikenridge collected watercolours of the rural South West,

just bought more with his compensation.

It was for others to create the plantation picturesque.

On Queens Square where Braikenridge claimed his share of the £20million there is no letter box for me to deliver his souvenir plaque. (architectural irony)

jamaican_plantation_1050x700
A conversation at a hotel on Pulteney street.

George Orwell’s grandparents claimed compensation from here.

The re-writing of history. (literary irony)
Outside the Park Street residence of Nathaniel Wells

First black JP and Lord Lieutenant of Monmouthshire. (no plaque)

Slaveowner. (no irony)

A conversation regarding family and loyalty.

The training of the white landed elite.

Power. Ruthlessness.

Hold a mirror to our modern European sensibilities and assumptions.

Raised as white elite, why would Wells have felt any more responsibility to his kin than to his class?

 

A conversation regarding performance…overkill? Repetitive?
Does a performative walk on such a theme need to be fun…does it need a distance?

What to do with the upset and anger.

Are we afraid of what we might unleash in ourselves?

Or had we just walked too far in the same direction?
Mad max suggests a making link to the Romans and get a laugh from lazy ‘locals’ enslaved to work at the baths.

It connects Horrible History style but denies.

I want to connect emotionally empathically. Taste the sweetness and think of human flesh digested by cowries in the ocean. Feel the rain and wonder about the memory of water. Hear the beat and dance to it.

The senses connect differently

towards the tower
At last bursting out to country

The finest view in England, so Beckford said.

Green treed river snaking through the valley

Watered with Atlantic rain.

Down there driven by water wheels

brass mills battered and thudded

Neptunes and Guinea pots

Brass manillas by the hundredweight

The currency of the slave trade

To go on the river to Bristol

For the slave ships across the sea to West Africa

To trade in human lives

Turner Beckford

On the grass at Beckford’s grave, the gilded tower behind us

Reading Dabydeen’s  Turner and looking at Turner’s slave ship painting

A conversation on scuba diving in the Caribbean connects:

Heritage in the water.

Or as Derek Walcott put it far better than I

Where are your monuments, your battles, martyrs?
Where is your tribal memory? Sirs,
in that gray vault. The sea. The sea
has locked them up. The sea is History.

We conclude with the sweetness. Sugar cake.

Kendal Mint Cake for walkers, Wordsworth and sensory memory

Mindful of the cycle of water

Even if it the molecules don’t hold

We make memory at this place, at Beckfords grave.

 

We connect, bear witness, then climb the tower.

I came back from the walk a different person

 

(quoted The Sea Is History – Poem by Derek Walcott)


Leave a comment

Interview and commentary on walking arts practice as research

For the second in the series of interviews exploring PhD students’ creative practice projects, John Edwards met Richard White at the Holburne Museum in Bath to learn more about his interdisciplinary approaches to history and landscape. My PhD is about walking and social media The walks are creative, performative and participatory. I’m exploring different strategies […]

via PhD Creative Practice Showcase – Richard White — BSU Research Blog


Leave a comment

Workhouse Walk 1

Workhouse Walk 1… a reflectionFront of workhouse

We gathered outside the imposing entrance to Bath’s former Workhouse, above us the old clock permanently stopped at twenty past six. What time was that? A time when the the arms finally rusted up and jammed. A time when the old spring ran out of energy. Wound down. Dead time. A clock that now no-one needs to wind again now that we carry precision digital time with us. The clock face dark and the gilt if it ever was, peeling from hands pulled down, pointing down as if with no further strength to even resist gravity.

The Workhouse bell rang.

A digital recording. W:house Exhib bell

The bell now permanently displayed in its wooden heritage case. The stub of clapper, an amputated tongue, deep inside. The museum crane held the bell and as it released from the wooden form it began to breath and ring and resonate. A ring from the past, a bring out your dead ring, not a school bell ring, not really an angelus ring, no peal of bells, no joy in the sound of that single struck note.  This was the ring of Workhouse time echoing down the painful years not from the chapel but down the corridors and across the yards from that central all-seeing all-hearing panopticon.

The Workhouse bell rang

And we heard it soaking into the hard flat stone walls, around the yards where women shredded rope and men broke stones. A sound once heard from the top of the hill, a warning, a structure. The day divided. The new routine signed by sound and policed with fear. Within these walls Bath’s poor were packed by the Poor Law Guardian, those forced off the land and drawn to the enchanted city where time was increasingly unified and measured in ticks, tocks and chimes rather than sun, moon, tide and pulse.

The Workhouse bell rang again

For perhaps the first time in seventy years in the corridors and hard walled yards the sound of the bell tolling. This time it was me and it cast out the sound in my head of the Summer Time Blues. The rock n rollers demise, mangled outside Chippenham he finished up on the old Workhouse then like now renamed more gently as St Martin’s Hospital. Eddie Cochrane died in Bath’s former Workhouse and like many famous and wealthy visitors to the city he got a plaque. This is where he died. The bell rings for him and all those who died in Bath’s Union Workhouse.

IMG_3012

We walked on, through grim workyards, along rough hewn stone walls and roaring road out to the burial ground off the Wellsway. In the centre of the field we gathered and John talked about the 3000 dead buried there, Bath’s poor who had no one to claim their bodies or the wherewithall to bury them. The field undulates, slow ripples of former lives. In the centre a slight mound, the mowers can’t decide whether to circle or skim. In the past there have been stones here, now these again moved to the side but standing there we saw more stones forcing themselves to the surface chipped by the mower blades. Something is coming to the surface, is there a DIY memorial being made, cleared and remade here?

Bearing witness

The Workhouse bell rings for the Workhouse dead

As it never did, only ever ringing to mark the hours of the working day. Eddie Cochrane gets a plaque, he died there but no memorial no plaque for more than 3000 dead in Bath’s Workhouse Burial Ground. The field is not even marked on the map.

We walk on.The boundary markers and lines of Wansdyke. Retracing old walks and cross country short cuts to the bridge over the railway line. The arrival of railway time. Work time. Factory time. Cold dead regular systematic clock in clock out industry time. A new time that had to be internalised by those who had for all generations lived with the time of the seasons, the time that connects with life. Ring out the dead indeed.

Cross country short cuts

We walked down through the trees following the Lyncombe brook, John washed his face in the gush of a cold water spa. Through Widcombe where once Workhouse schoolmaster Mr Winkworth walked his boys. We were retracing his steps, preparing for the long walk in July. Onto the canal where once perhaps there was work but now there is leisure. Spat out into the city under the great black modernist bridge.

The bell rings for the penultimate time on this short Workhouse Walk

Site of the Offices

At the site of the Poor Law Guardian’s office. Here the bearded Victorian patriarchs of the enchanted City sat in judgment over the poor, deserving and undeserving. Their offices, prone to warm water flooding, were finally demolished to reveal the Roman Baths “in all its splendour” . A city built on slavery, built by slaves, rediscovered. And in a country still basking in the wealth generated by  empire and slavery, the Victorian poor? Some fought back, resisted, but many worn out, injured, disabled, too old, too young, were hidden from view, warehoused in the Workhouse until they died. Today they remain hidden from view.

…and finally to the Museum of Bath at Work, the enchanted City of leisure appropriately has a museum of Work. Here temporarily the Workhouse Bell sits in its wooden form, silenced.

W:house Exhib openingbell and bust

The bell rings again for the last time today.

Workhouse walks continue. Do join us!

More details here: http://www.walknowtracks.co.uk/projects.html


Leave a comment

Crying at the Bus Stop

Crying at the Bus Stop

Test of provocation for opening session of Remora: Contextualising Creative research

A symposium at Bath Spa University Thursday 23 Feb 2017

In a time of post truth, fake news and alternative facts its important to look up, look in and look out, stop digging for a moment and consider other ways of knowing and other forms of knowledge. I was fortunate to be a student at the University of Sussex in the days of the idea of the new university and ‘redrawing the maps of learning’ and its been exciting to be pursuing a PhD here as this university starts to put some serious effort behind interdisciplinary collaboration. But both way back when and now I hear the sounds of the old academic book carts being pulled into a circle, just as the wagon trains did in the movies crossing the american west..making a defensive circle against people attacking them who they did not understand. Who they did not want not understand…

So I was alarmed when I got a questionnaire from the Bath Spa University graduate office asking me what I thought practice as research was. I thought blimey isn’t this what the Bath School of Art and Design have been doing since forever..and Creative Writing…music …dance etc. Don’t they have a model? Shouldnt they know? But then I thought there’s more to it than that, for my part I am engaging as an artist directly with the academic fields of history, heritage, geography… for me at least its not simply about doing something solely located within a creative field and writing something ‘theoretical’ about it.

The creative activity is the research and that does need articulating ……and thats what get me here…

However, I am afraid I reject entirely the shark/remora metaphor. There is something anthropomorphic in this attempt to align them with some kind of human knowledge or element of academia. Metaphorical thinking has its uses and it maybe it works here as a provocation. But as a scuba diver and thus occasional visitor to the realm of the shark and the remora I know it is another world with other rules and other ways of being.

I love the word remora however and I love the way that the hash tag becomes be sure mora. To be sure I would rather watch the fish than second guess the nature of their relationship and map that on to a typology of knowledge or enquiry. The sharks and the remora have been in the sea for longer than we have been sapiens…..

Nora Bateson, daughter of Gregory Bateson, describes how he would put her on the bus to school and as he watched the bus pull out he would cry…he thought school would destroy her mind. She argues that education and learning needs to have multiple perspectives…Schooling she argues is  ‘delivering an obsolete form of inquiry that fails to engage with the dynamics of living complexity. The stakes are high, the survival of the human species as well as countless others is at hand”.  School didn’t destroy her mind but she says  now as a parent herself she still weeps at the bus stop and says of her generations legacy  “We will have to find the strength to carry the heaviest of all burdens; an empty bag of tricks” (Bateson, N. 2014)

I dont think the bag is empty. As an elder now I want to make sure that some of the ways of knowing and learning that have inspired me get shared , there are understandings emerging that I could only have reached through creative practice.

I am just re-reading McCullough (2013) Ambient Commons: Attention in the Age of Embodied Information and he raises a whole load of questions around knowledge and learning, crucially asking questions about tacit knowlege and intrinsic knowledge in an age where more and more is coded and disconnected from the signifieds.

“when we know almost everything through documentation, and almost nothing directly, will any of us notice that something is missing?” he asks

…when a bogus WMD reports takes us to war, when alt facts gain currency and when experts are derided..is this part of the diagnosis of what got us to Brexit and Trump?

McCullough argues that underneath the freeplay of signifiers an unmediated world is out there, one that works without encoded transmissions….this resonates with the non representational approaches  I have been exploring  and opens up the space to consider embodiment and affect.

I walked in the rain with my granddaughter, we laughed, we both got wet. I saw some neighbourly help going on by the roadside this morning. I give blood .. We do the right thing and it feels right. We are social creatures.

So for my part I feel liberated by this debate and my discovery of an approach that validates learning and discovery through affect, emotion, feeling, embodiment, tacit and intrinsic knowledge…

as Bob Dylan sang “You dont need a weather man to know which way the wind blows”

The challenge is how to reveal the knowledge to capture and articulate it in a useful form that does not replicate the old ways….

I think the growing interest in creative practice as research indicates people are looking for new ways of thinking and that it is through those new ways of thinking we will find a way out of the terrible mess the old ways have got us into.


Leave a comment

Tyntesfield recuperated, a purchase betrayed.

Disconcerting visit to the National Trust property at Tyntesfield yesterday. Where once this was a fascinating time capsule slowly being catalogued and, I thought, somehow carefully resealed in viewable form it has been given an old school National Trust make-over. A house once alive and vibrant with histories becomes a stage set again.

Where once there were rooms abandoned by  wealthy owners who could no longer be bothered to maintain, them there are themed static exhibits about a Victorian era patriarch.

Where once there was a cluttered library and workroom stacked with books of all ages from battered paperbacks to leather bound volumes, displaying a revealing interest in empire and military history. Now, its tidy with the old books ordered and not a paperback or glossy cover in sight. What was once full of life is now static and life less.

Another study, now locked shut, once mixed late twentieth century entertainment and communication with the Victorian, a television and VHS player, modern cabling running along the paneling totally appropriate witnessed change in a house that once sported the latest in late nineteenth century technology. A more complicated heritage closed off.
Tyntesfield kitchen shelves
As was the kitchen that to me always witnessed the slow decline of the property, as the money was wasted away, capital taken elsewhere. Here alongside huge old cookers that once prepared the feasts for the room with the hand painted wall paper, I always imagined the last wizened old gent in his battered wheel chair wrapped in a blanket and being served toast by an even older family retainer who whispered Somerset in his ear “the ceiling in the west wing has gone sir”. Here it seemed to me the money ran out, rows of old toasters and toast wracks on badly painted kitchen shelves, a rusty old Hotpoint cooker and one of those new fangled microwaves , perhaps bought by the grandchildren for the old boy.

My construction perhaps, but all those things represented layer upon layer of history, rooms full of linen, jars and porcelain including the old mans bedpans. Objects that I recognised from our lives in the late twentieth century..the cooker, the toasters, the books, the up market hifi. Here we engaged with history and spun our stories of this family that made its fortune on Peruvian bird shit dug out by chinese slave labourers.

All tidied away to tell the story of the Victorian patriarch who took the family into respectability, with  a few footnotes of critical information for those who bother to read to the end of the portable panels. The talking posts in the park where we heard the voice ghosts of former servants, all swept away. Even in this year of first world war commemoration, the make up box of a son  who rouged his cheeks so he would not appear to show fear as he urged his fellows to their deaths…… all, all safely locked away.
Tynres
The whole point of the purchase of Tyntesfield was that the National Trust was buying literally the lot, not the cherry picked remains of a country house handed over as  tax dodge, The Lot. …and we all bought into that….And it was so exciting on our first visits when they were still unpacking, cataloguing and fixing the roof. This was a family who had the space to hoard everything from old wall paper samples to carpet off-cuts and rooms full of furniture and relics. A record in ‘stuff’ that went back before living memory but came well within the lives of many visitors and a few surviving estate employees. These riches of Tyntesfield enabled us all to construct our own stories, the layers of history were clearly apparent some more obscured than others, some more decayed than others. What should have been a living time capsule seem to have been stripped out in favour of the old authorised country house story.

I was so disappointed that I even began to think that the cobwebbed chairs in the stable were constructed as nods towards the memories of previous visitors like me, with an old  home brew glass demijohn strategically turned to view, so that the label from September 1989 could be seen. I even overheard that the magnificent dahlias are brought in as mini plants and not lifted and overwintered as my grandmother used to do….and thus began to suspect that even the much loved kitchen garden was a stage set.

It is all a stage set, I know. And I do understand the tensions between restoration and preservation. But where once other stories poked through haphazard and untidy now the stage appears set for a single and decontextalised story safely confined to a dreamy Victorian/Edwardian past. Sadly Tyntesfield has been recuperated in the National Trust spectacle, a potential for showing a new and bold way of exploring  if not even challenging the enchantment of the English Country House, betrayed.


Leave a comment

Bath: the plaqued and the unplaqued

Beagles in the basement, stopped and searched on Bath’s Royal Crescent, an elopement, plaques, parties and hollow pillars. A disenchanted walk across the city, rattling railings.
44AD humanity 2
Setting off from the gallery where the red glow room call to our humanity had yet to be illuminated, but already the question was there. Outside the theatre our first set of plaques that told us nothing about the origins of the wealth or where it went, did Bean Nash die of syphilis and did the woman really end her days in a tree. Good stories so why not? The harder truth was across the road where a casino will be built faux Georgian in the open space once the playground of a school and before that a clay pipe factory.
pipe factory site for casino
Tobacco. The first legacy of the day. The plantation economy produced addiction that generated wealth for Wills. Maybe pipes went down the river but surely the tobacco came up. A commodity worth exploring.

On to the signs that ward off the devil and a collector of watercolours, Mr Braikenridge. A ‘West India merchant’, a euphemism from the era of slavery. Slaveowner. Remembered as a man of letters who gathered picturesque images of the west country, do we view the collection differently, do we see that house on the corner of Queen Square differently? No plaque guides us or protective sign indicates wrongs committed. One lump or two Mr Beckford?
21 Queen Square Braikenridge
On the way up to our mans residence we walk the Royal Crescent, where West Indian merchants retired with their families and ‘servants’.  A story of a house party. A plaque to an elopement,  representing pride or shame or just a good story involving a once famous dramatist? No plaques for slaveowners here. Were they ashamed already? We do Pitman and shorthand but other plaques no general knowledge comes to our aid. Perhaps we should have asked passers by. A stop and search story from a walker brings us to the moment, and the second point of legacy for the day: institutional racism.

We continue up the hill stopping outside the one time residence of Nathaniel Wells, slaveowner, beneficiary of the compensation claims , did he get compensation on his mother, a house slave? Mixed race Mr Wells became Britains first black JP, first black Sheriff and the owner of Peircefield house. Its gardensonce an example of the picturesque, now in ruins on the edge of Chepstow racecourse.

To Beckford’s house we share the story and add our spin, his sexuality and huge slave generated wealth which with the compensation money last him a lifetime without working a day. A story that he bought the house next door to silence a dog barking, another dog further along the crescent popped into memory. Beagles in the basement in the former girls school kitchen. Former girls school once the home of slaveowner and slavery advocate. So we review the liberal myth of Bath. Legacy number three, a language of universal human rights.
18-20 Lansdown Cresecnet Beckford
Simon Barrow former Mayor of Bath, former Alderman and, in the footsteps of Beau Nash, Master of Ceremonies. One of Bath’s Last Legal Slaveowners. …. and Jewish. Stretching the mind to make sense it all, is this assimilation or corruption?
plaqued out Circus2.jpg
Down to the river chewing this over by way of the Circus where caught in the turgid tour guided crowds we reached peak plaque. Livingstone of Africa, Clive of India, where to begin with these Edwardian era celebrated but blood stained builders of Empire? As the good man Dabydeen says, at least with some truth, a disenchantment. At the river we stop to think of prisons, breweries and slaughterhouses. On the purity of water and what has dissolved in it. What is suspended.

Blood, sweat, tears. The bodies of those dumped overboard as rebels or damaged goods.

Finally to a consideration of the possibly not contemporaneous neighbours of Mr Wilberforce, he suitably plaque along with Hannah Moore across the street, the only woman plaque spotted on our journey. But no plaque for the Reverend Scott, The Reverend Scott on whose plantation 110 rebel slaves were executed  in a brutally repressed uprising. The Reverend Scott who received more than ten thousand pounds in compensation for the ‘release’ of his plantation slaves. Scott’s wife is supposed to have a memorial stone in the nearby church. Still looking for it.

Laura fountain7


Leave a comment

On neoliberalism and the arts: thoughts walking in four gardens

(thoughts and notes from July 2016 visit to Los Angeles exploring Heritage Management with Bath Spa University and Claremont Graduate University post grad students)

LA station4The PepsiCo Foundation garden for healthy eating:

In the heart of restored down town Los Angeles, where the authorities reach out for legitimacy in the City’s Spanish/Mexican heritage, obese citizens waddle to lunch. In the square above the city’s vast cathedral train station built as part of the great interwar public works programme, the homeless gather. A bandstand shades ragged sad old men, bearded, dead eyed. A stall sells Mexican trinkets, skull candles, stuffed donkeys, florescent days of the dead. This square, once the only permitted space for free speech in the city, is silent, the old men don’t even ask for small change.

We meet at La Plaza de Cultura y Artes, a repurposed commercial building restored with city support, where John Echeveste, President and CEO of La Plaza, informs us, with no trace of irony, that Pepsico funds its kitchen garden as part of its healthy eating programme. Laura Zucker, Executive Director of the Los Angeles County Arts Commission, describes a funding regime that forces Echeveste and colleagues into the arms of the corporates.

La Plaza offer a solidarity and community building story of the Latino presence all the way through to C20th sporting heroes. A story told with a sensibility to the different working class ethnic and cultural communities of LA, but extraordinarily thin on indigenous peoples and muted on the ruling white elite.

Zucker extolls the virtues of individual ‘giving’, building on audience/visitor altruism beyond ticket sales, and corporate and individual tax avoidance by ‘giving’ to the heritage sector. This, she argues, is a powerful incentive to build and consolidate the core audience. In the US, according to Zucker, lean, hungry artists and curators have their eyes on generating income and don’t get bloated on state aid.

Freeway driveThe Getty Villa (oil) Garden:

Under a yellow haze across the sprawling city where the public transport network was ripped up for oil and automobiles. Getty oil. We move slowly in the traffic. More roadside homeless, people made zombie in the heat and our air-conditioned view. Under the freeway bridges and in the dry river plain others make their homes in shanty constructions I last saw in Khartoum.

 

Getty Villa gardenWe arrive to a full scale replica of a Roman villa in a ravine overlooking the sea. Just as the city centre restoration reaches into Latino heritage, here the elite make claims on European classicism, to the slave societies of Greece and Rome, for their legitimacy. The contents on display better reflect the English aristocracy’s Grand Tour looting of Europe.

The fountains are dry and the reflecting pools empty: climate change and oil is not on the agenda. Claire Lyons, Senior Curator of Antiquities informs us that Getty funds helped village people in the south of France save the remains of an ancient Roman villa. No irony in the display, on a wall, in the Getty Villa, of the huge mozaics found there. 10,000 miles away.

Getty Villa walls 2Walking out into the Californian heat, I was angry and felt robbed. Objects ripped out of context, displayed in a context more imagined than real, itself decontextualized, only brand Getty provides coherence. Even the LA students were testing the K word, kitsch. Objects so revered that even the replica walls containing them had warnings not to touch.

 

 

 

St Monica tsunami sign

Out past the silent parched pools, no longer blue sky reflecting, we head for the beach rejoicing in our shared garbled heritage: movies, rock and roll and resistance. At the western end of Route 66 we swim in the strong, weighty swell of the Pacific and on the pier a muscle man and woman preen and selfie.

A tsunami escape route is, at least, signed.

 

 

 

 

The Watts Towers community garden:

Watts Towers insta
A journey deep into the city. For me it began long ago with soul, funk and rnb I was teenage imprinted with the WattStaxx LP cover, later the film and its opening sequence: Watts Towers. Uprisings, gangland wars in the distant big city but always I could locate it in the music and the towers. Discovering that we were to meet Rosie Lee Hooks, Director of the Watts Towers Arts Center, a singer with Sweet Honey in the Rock connected it all up. A pilgrimage for me.

Again travelling in the slow flow concrete maze, the unredeemed promise of individualism, speed and the motorcar, where the threat of climate change hides in plain view. Trams once ran right past the Watts Towers, a glorious construction built to be seen by commuters.  Neighbour disputes, art wars, gangland wars and the fires of uprisings have raged all around, but still the towers stand. Even in their origin myth, breaking the cables and crane sent to test them, the towers stand firm. A cultural magnetism attracts stories to the towers, from the story that one day Simon Rodia, just stopped, gave the keys to his neighbour and walked away from his life’s work, to the story that here the legendary Crips and Bloods gangs of LA made peace brokered by a Muslim imam.

Jazz hums in the decorated rungs and flying wire buttresses of the structures. Don Cherry. Charles Mingus.

This place is in the world, connected to contemporary issues; a formally recognised and City supported Historic Cultural Watts Towers signMonument. ‘We will not be privatised’ says Ms Hooks. A powerful and moving exhibition, Black Lives Matter, in the arts centre makes the psycho geographical connections. Here racial identity is asserted, an unassailable and absolute righteous confidence, African American pride from Black Power to Black Lives Matter… You got us here white European slavers, deal with it. Not so far from the historic international working class assertion that we produced the wealth and have a right to a fair share of it.

Out of the centre walking in blue bright dry heat, to a model drought resistant community kitchen garden. A passionate woman asks us to take her regards back to Kew Gardens. Rescued turtles splash in a mosaic lined enclosure and in a tarpaulin shaded workshop the mosaic work continues. The land had been squatted when the City wanted to build a skateboard park there.

 

Watts Towers suculents

Walking in the garden I wondered if this emphasis on racial identity was all about the insecurity of the immigrant communities of the US, a society founded on slavery and established on land taken from the indigenous peoples. Otherness defined by skin colour and racial appearance. Wounds so deep and reconciliation barely begun, the secular internationalism that could unite and heal still in post McCarthy tatters. When divisions are racialised and the colour of your skin means something about power and history then white silence is complicity. I had walked a long way from the PepsiCo Foundation Garden.

 

Japanese American National Museum

To the shiny towers and policed privatised spaces of the city. A powerful exhibition on the history of the Japanese American community. A story of pre WW2 hope and assimilation, then patriotism betrayed post Pearl Harbour by the internment in concentration camps of the entire Japanese community. Released in 1945 with 25$ and a bus ticket they returned to find homes and possession trashed. Visual echoes of the Holocaust and an attempt to attend to wider connections.  The glass walls of the building are etched with names not of the Nagasaki and Hiroshima dead, but the names of donors. Outreach activities recorded by the number of sponsored bus journeys.

From Bergamot Station to San Gabriel Mission garden

San Gab orange treesAt Bergamot alongside a long silenced railway depot returning to life, artists occupy abandoned industrial sheds, a repurposing entrepreneur inspires at first. At San Gabriel on the other side of town we are refreshed; working, howling, rattling, rumbling, trains from the port comes almost to the garden of the old mission house, ringing bells and blowing horns raising ancient spirits. A gloriously garbled, real oranges growing on real trees, multi-layered handwritten and mythical heritage yet to succumb to the spectacle. But wait, back at Bergamot was it artists working in those empty factory sheds or dealers in exhibition spaces selling stuff? We didn’t look like buyers so with a passing name drop we are ignored. Once again it is commodity speaking, art as commodity, history as commodity or at least set dressing, layers of heritage that don’t seem to be allowed to speak until it can be given a financial value.

 

Heritage, arts and funding, Ms Zucker reprised:

Of the museum/galleries visited the only one actively seeking to generate resonances on the key issues of our times: internationalism, human rights and climate change, was the Watts Towers Arts Centre. It was the only one to be fiercely defending its state funded status, independence and wider cultural value. Where is innovation, we challenged Zucker at the start of the week, what if you are poor and don’t have rich contacts and what about the collective needs of the nation and humanity? The all American crowdfunding myth was rolled out, the market will find a way. It seemed to me that the US charitable giving philanthropy so beloved of neo-liberal elements in the UK at best simply replicates existing inequalities. There is no real incentive to innovate or addresses bigger, wider issues as long as the core audience and corporate funders are satisfied. It is a system that has no real strategy other than the market and very limited democratic accountability.

The minority ethnic community museums we visited showed strong and resilient communities recognising the need and value for community solidarity and the importance of telling the stories, especially the stories of origin, struggle and collective action. My concern is that the tax incentive driven funding regime was pushing those museums apart and reinforcing division. A US student expressed the view that these museums were addressing all of us, reaching out for advocates to take the information and share it. The museums had significant stories to tell, of value to us all, it needs more than visitor inspired advocacy, culture and heritage need the democratic and accountable support of the state.

Historic Space

“We don’t use the word heritage here”, Prof Goode told us, this term is now occupied by white racists in the south.
 

The referendum on the European Union has emboldened the racists and fascists, this US neo liberal tax dollars incentivised philanthropy model for the arts and culture has nothing to offer for the healing and reconciliation needed.